Media Policy and the Next Presidency: The Time is Now

By Laura Efurd, Chief Community Investment Officer, ZeroDivide

Anyone keeping up with the Presidential primaries knows that there is little certainty in this year’s Presidential election. The one thing we do know is that come January 2009 we will have a new President. With technology and new media playing the most significant role in an election to date, one wonders what kind of impact this will have on the new administration’s media and technology policies.

All the candidates are utilizing online social networks like MySpace and Facebook, and video mashups are making the rounds on YouTube. Websites like are tracking candidates’ support from social networking sites and analyzing their positions on technology and media issues. Students and grandmothers alike are utilizing virtual phone banking and creating on-the-ground field campaigns via the Internet (

Will this innovative use of media and technology by the candidates and their supporters translate into justice-oriented media and technology policies by the new administration? Media advocates and funders need to think and act now in order to have a significant impact on the new administration’s policies in this area.

We asked several media advocates for their suggestions on how to prepare for advancing a media/technology agenda in the new administration. The following highlights their thoughts and offers some ideas for funders interested in media.

Lay the Groundwork

  • Success with the next administration requires laying the groundwork now by engaging in the electoral process.

The 25 member Media and Democracy Coalition plans to raise the profile of media and telecommunications policy at the nominating conventions of the Democrats and Republicans. According to Beth McConnell, the project’s Executive Director, plans are under way to hold a media policy symposium during the Denver convention for delegates and advocates, and would like to do something similar in Minneapolis during the Republican convention.

  • Understanding the candidates’ positions on media policy issues and then holding them accountable is important.

Alex Nogales, President and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition suggests a Presidential debate focused on media policy issues. Why not? McConnell would like to see the media reform sector come together and prioritize one high profile initiative to rally around “to raise the profile of our issues and show candidates for all elected office the strength of the growing media reform movement.”

Mark Lloyd, media policy expert and now Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights suggests that long-term and sustainable policy success would require, “1) an intensive planning convention to inform the next President and 2) organizing work (including focus groups, polling and framing) to convince the next administration that there is strong support for a clear set of policies across the range of media/telecom/Internet issues.”

Be Prepared with the Facts

  • Having the hard data and strong research on hand is necessary to support pro-active policy proposals.

Lloyd notes that we need a “greater focus now on the need for better official data, not simply analysis or economic projections. This focus has to be on everything from the deployment of broadband, to broadcast ownership, to the efficacy of the FCC auctions, to the speech of pundits and talk show hosts.”

Mind Who’s Running the Shop

  • Thousands of jobs in federal agencies will change hands in the transition to a new administration.

Alex Nogales tells us of NHMC’s work with the Minority Media Telecommunications Council to develop a list of policy experts, particularly people of color, that they will urge be considered for key administration posts. They are in the midst of developing criteria for these candidates, including a compelling civil rights vision for the new administration.

The President will make appointments to key posts at the Federal Communications Commission, the White House, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education, as well as many other agencies which will have a significant impact on media and technology issues.

For every high level job such as an FCC commissioner there are hundreds of other positions within agencies and on commissions that can influence the direction of policy in an administration. The right person in the right role, even among the rank and file level of political appointees referred to as “Schedule C” appointments can make a significant difference. Having an advocate on “the inside” is critical and can make that difference between policy advocates’ success and failure.

Put Media at the Top of the Agenda

  • Net Neutrality, broadband access, and media diversity and fairness should be made a part of a 100-day policy agenda of any new administration.

Ben Scott, Policy Director of Free Press, says the new President should quickly “make the issue of Network Neutrality the law of the land to protect a free and open Internet. Network Neutrality allows the public to access any Web site or any Web application of their choice without discrimination. Net Neutrality has been the guiding principle of the Internet since its inception.” In other words, the phone and cable companies who provide Internet service should not be allowed to block content from Internet users or give preferential treatment to the delivery of information by their corporate advertisers.

Scott also noted the importance of looking for innovative ways to achieve universal broadband access, such as asking the FCC to allow wireless mobile devices to use “white spaces” - the unused portions of the television spectrum - to provide affordable broadband access. Broadband access was a key policy mentioned by Mark Lloyd as well. The next administration needs “to follow through on the promise of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecom Act which calls for the federal government to better define, map, deploy and make fully accessible true broadband technology to all Americans.”

Today high-speed internet/broadband access is critical to economic development, education, civic engagement, health care and more, yet the U.S. ranks only 19th in the world with regard to broadband deployment rates. Only 47% of adults have broadband access at home, and the numbers are even lower in Hispanic, African-American, and rural households. Internet providers in Japan, South Korea, Sweden and France all provide broadband service that is 5 to 10 times faster – and less expensive - than the service available in the U.S.

Beth McConnell is concerned that local municipalities be free to pursue their own broadband options, such as publicly-owned and controlled communications networks. This would help spur successful broadband initiatives at the local level that can bridge the digital divide and strengthen regional infrastructure.

Malkia Cyril, Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice, states that the President should work to “establish a comprehensive new fairness doctrine that increases access to first amendment rights and reinstates key public interest regulations, such as equal airtime for opposing views, and tighter regional and national media ownership limits. The FCC’s focus on indecency should be replaced with an initiative to assert journalistic and record label public interest standards, and the commission should act to increase resources for public access media.”

Strengthen the National-Local link

  • Foster infrastructure to increase ties between national, regional and local actors.

Cyril suggests that foundations can play a key role in this effort by “supporting the establishment of regional media justice hubs in 10 regions across the country. Through these hubs, organizations and constituencies without access to Beltway policy deliberations or federal lobbyists can begin to advocate for media policy that fits their vision, with their own voices.” In addition, “national coalitions and organizations could place organizers in key bridge groups that have influence within under-represented communities and regions.”

Government can play a role in strengthening these connections as well. By establishing more inclusive public processes, the government can obtain a wider range of information that more accurately reflects our diverse population. Cyril suggests that more public hearings throughout the country would help close the gap of information between DC policymakers and the communities they represent. Lloyd agrees, stating that “it would be helpful if the FCC established a regular schedule of regional meetings to hear from local communities.”

What Does this Mean for Media/Technology Funders?

Support in key areas can make the difference in laying the groundwork for a justice-oriented media and technology agenda in the new administration. The ideas shared in this article suggest some specific ways we can help as funders:

  • Support educational and informational activities related to media and technology policy issues throughout the electoral process, such as education forums.
  • Fund research to gather more robust data on broadband access, media ownership, and the digital divide. Also, make foundation-supported research available to the new administration.
  • Support efforts to place educational materials, policy experts, and lists of potential appointment candidates in front of key people in the new administration.
  • Help build an infrastructure between national, regional and local advocates to work together to advance an agenda. This could include activities such as a national media policy institute in D.C. for local advocates to learn about and participate in advocacy at the federal level.
  • Invest in social media technology so that policy advocates can take full advantage of the innovative new ways to engage and mobilize supporters.
  • Provide operating support for the day-to-day work of local, regional and national media and technology non-profits. This support must take place both in preparation for, and throughout the course of, a new administration.

Funding policy and advocacy can be challenging. The policy environment moves quickly and is often unpredictable. Funding media, communications and technology policy requires that funders keep informed about the issues and the actors (non-profit organizations, policymakers and industry).

The good news is that there are mechanisms for funders to get involved quickly and effectively. Coalitions and national organizations such as those mentioned in this article and the Links section of the GFEM website provide a way for funders to quickly leverage their investment in a broad effort.

Investing in your own backyard is often a good place to start. Most communities have media advocates. They may be the non-profit running your local cable access station, a community technology center, an affordable housing complex using a wireless technology to provide internet services to the residents, the technologist at a local high school, or the youth who are creating their own media at an after-school program at the local YMCA. A quick survey of your local funding area may turn up some key grassroots organizations to support in these efforts.

In closing, always ensure you are following the rules and regulations regarding advocacy and lobbying as dictated by the type of your foundation. (See Alliance for Justice for resources.) Remember that there is a great deal we can make happen, particularly with regard to educating policymakers and prospective policymakers on the issues of concern to the communities we serve, and in building the capacity of these communities to participate in our government and in policy-making processes.

Our country will not be the same after November 2008. Let’s do our part to make sure it’s one that empowers our communities through freedom, equity and diversity in our media and communications networks.

Laura Efurd is the Chief Community Investment Officer at ZeroDivide, formerly the Community Technology Foundation, and a member of the Board of Directors of Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media (GFEM).

Thank you to the participants for generously sharing of their time and intellect in preparing this article:

Malkia Cyril, Center for Media Justice
Mark Lloyd, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
Beth McConnell, Media and Democracy Coalition
Alex Nogales, National Hispanic Media Coalition
Ben Scott, Free Press